Rep. Madison Cawthorn Faces Backlash from Both Sides for Calling Ukraine President Zelenskyy a 'Thug'

A spokesperson for the North Carolina congressman later said, "He supports Ukraine and the Ukrainian President's efforts to defend their country against Russian aggression"

Rep. Madison Cawthorn. Photo: Zuma/

North Carolina Rep. Madison Cawthorn faced backlash this week from Republicans and Democrats alike for insulting Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his government as they defend the country against attacks in an ongoing war with Russia.

"Remember that Zelenskyy is a thug. Remember that the Ukrainian government is incredibly corrupt, and it is incredibly evil, and it has been pushing woke ideologies," Cawthorn said during a recent event with supporters.

Local TV station WRAL, which obtained video of Cawthorn, 26, making the comments, reported that was unclear where he said it but that he made several appearances over the weekend in North Carolina.

Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, of South Carolina, said the comments didn't represent their party, calling Cawthorn an outlier "in the largest sense possible" at a news conference on Thursday, according to The Washington Post.

Sen. Joni Ernst, a Republican from Iowa, reminded Cawthorn that Russian President Vladimir Putin was the one who chose to invade Ukraine on Feb. 24 and referred to him as "an actual murderous thug," the paper reported.

A spokesperson for Cawthorn did not respond to PEOPLE's request for comment but clarified his remarks in a statement to the Post.

"The Congressman was expressing his displeasure at how foreign leaders, including Zelensky, had recently used false propaganda to entice America into becoming involved in an overseas conflict," Luke Ball said. "He supports Ukraine and the Ukrainian President's efforts to defend their country against Russian aggression, but does not want America drawn into another conflict through emotional manipulation."

On Twitter Thursday, Cawthorn called the actions of Russia and Putin, who ordered the invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, "disgusting."

"But leaders, including Zelensky, should NOT push misinformation on America," he added in the tweet. "I am praying for Ukraine and the Ukrainian people. Pray also we are not drawn into conflict based on foreign leaders pushing misinformation."

Volodymyr Zelenskyy
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Presidency of Ukraine/Handout/Anadolu Agency/Getty

Cawthorn expressed support of former President Donald Trump in a tweet on Thursday, sent just before the he wrote that he is praying for Ukraine. "How many times has Trump been proven right over the last year?" he wrote. "SO MANY!"

It's not clear which instances the congressman was referring to, but Trump was widely condemned for calling Putin's actions ahead of Russia's attack "genius" and "very savvy."

Democratic Rep. Ruben Gallego of Arizona said it was "disturbing that [Cawthorn] sits in our classified briefings on Russian Ukraine war" in a tweet on Thursday.

"Not sure now that is a good idea," Gallego wrote. "On the plus side. The words used are very complex and it's not just pictures so he may not be able to decode the brief."

Jaime Harrison, the chair of the Democratic National Committee, called Cawthorn "dim-witted" for his comments about Zelenskyy and Ukraine and referred to Republicans as "the Party of Putin."

Republican strategist Karl Rove, who served in President George W. Bush's White House, wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed headlined "Republicans Stand Up for Ukraine" that Cawthorn and other members of the party "echoing Mr. Trump's isolationism, and Kremlin apologetics are out of sync with GOP voters."

The Russian attack on Ukraine is an evolving story, with information changing quickly. Follow PEOPLE's complete coverage of the war here, including stories from citizens on the ground and ways to help.

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